Coaching – a brief introduction

Coaching is an approach to individual development that focuses on future possibilities, not past mistakes and involves the leader in encouraging individuals and teams to identify opportunities and solve problems and challenges with minimal need to refer upwards for decisions. It also requires the leader to build positive relationships and create a workplace environment where individuals are valued for their contribution and recognised for the knowledge and skills that they bring. Individuals and teams generally welcome this increased authority, autonomy and accountability and will use their creative energies to positive effect for themselves, the team and the organisation. The leader benefits by being able to focus on the more strategic aspects of their role, confident that individuals and teams will deal competently with the day to day detail of their work. The greatest challenge for the leader is to “let go” and resist the temptation to “interfere”. Trust, confidence and genuine positive regard for individuals are vital components in the relationship.

The following are the words of Tom, a Production Operator in a medium sized manufacturing company.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve been in the business longer than many others here. I know my job inside out and I could do so much more, if only I was allowed to. There are many things we could do to get the job done quicker but no one listens. I’ve made suggestions before but it’s a waste of time, so I don’t bother anymore. I just keep my head down and do what I need to do.”

How many “Tom’s” are in your organisation or even your team?

Or perhaps you can associate with the words of Cathie, a senior manager in a public sector organisation.

“I spend so much time solving other people’s problems. I know that they know what to do, so why do they always refer everything to me? I try to encourage them, and I tell them that I have confidence in them, but they just seem reluctant to make decisions. It’s so frustrating!”

Both of the above quotes reflect a workplace environment where potential is being stifled, not necessarily deliberately but probably because of not knowing how to change the situation.

A leader/coach approach using the principles and characteristics of coaching will help employees to be more confident and willing to take more responsibility. It will give key staff the knowledge and transformational leadership skills to develop others in the business and improve overall performance and it can strengthen the business and reduce its vulnerability to future change.

So, what are the principles that underpin the effectiveness of using a leader/coach approach?

1. Awareness

Awareness is the most common outcome that a coaching approach delivers and many of the benefits individuals receive, arise from this. There is a misconception that coaching is about pushing people, or pressurising them, or leading them to solutions. In fact, the opposite is the case and by using a coaching style, people willingly move forward, identify their goals and make changes. The role of the coach is to help the individual to be more aware of what they are capable of. To help them to open their mind to the opportunities that are available to them and to help them to tap in to the potential they didn’t know they had. Sometimes we are unaware of the impact our attitudes, behaviours and actions (positive or negative) can have on a wider audience and the organisation as a whole.

If only we could see ourselves through the eyes of others, what would we do differently?

A Coach can, through effective and sensitive coaching conversations, help individuals to increase their self-awareness – help them to see the impact they may be having on others and on situations and outcomes.

The Coach must also be aware of what might be going on inside the individual’s mind. What are their fears, concerns, strengths, challenges and motivations? Getting to know and understand them before helping them on their journey of discovery. A coach must also have a high level of self-awareness and emotional intelligence and know how their own attitudes and behaviours can impact on others, particularly the individual being coached.

2. Responsibility

A core principle of coaching is self-responsibility or taking ownership of our decisions. We learn better when we discover things for ourselves rather than when others tell us. We like to create our own solutions rather than be told what to do. Think of someone who is learning a new process at work. They may be getting it right most of the time but may occasionally get one part wrong. Would you explain the whole process to them again? Of course not. They already have all the knowledge they need to be successful, what they need now is support and encouragement. They want to take responsibility for getting it right.

The coach’s responsibility is to ensure that the individual is supported to be able to work out for themselves what is preventing them from getting it right. Given this freedom, they will find a solution that they can work with. They will feel that sense of achievement when they get it right through their own efforts. That doesn’t mean that if they are struggling to find a workable solution the Coach just leaves them to flounder.

As a Coach it is ok to offer suggestions if you have an idea that you know will help, however wait until the individual has exhausted all their own possibilities first. A common approach of a Coach is to respond to the statement ………. “I don’t know what to do”……. by saying “What do you think you should do?” This is a good response maybe two or three times to help the individual think deeper about what they could do but is really unhelpful if the person genuinely can’t see a way forward.

Try asking for permission to “make a suggestion” ……… “I have a couple of options that you may like to consider. Would you like me to share them?”…… If they agree, make the suggestions but leave them to figure out how they might work.

Something like … “ I was thinking perhaps you might like to consider …… or ……. Would any of those work for you?”

When they start to think it through and consider the possibilities, the suggestion then becomes theirs not yours. To quote Dale Carnegie (How to win friends and influence people) “let them feel the idea is theirs” – people are more enthusiastic about their own ideas and will try and make them work.

3. Self-belief

Confidence that we can do something is a key factor in achieving it. People can develop self-belief by being given the space to learn, both through making mistakes and achieving goals. They can also learn from the past mistakes of others and giving them exposure to examples can help them find a way forward.

“Learn from the mistakes of others … you haven’t got time to make them all yourself!”

We can also learn from the successes of others, so the same principle applies. Help individuals broaden their horizon through examples of success and don’t forget to encourage them to reflect on their own past successes.

It will help if you are aware of the Four Stages of Learning when supporting individuals, particularly when they are learning something new.

Martin M. Broadwell first articulated the model in his “four stages of teaching” in February 1969. Later described as “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill”.

The Four Stages of Learning provides a model for learning. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, and are motivated to learn, they consciously work to acquire that skill, then consciously practice the skill until they become proficient in its use. Eventually, they perform the skill without consciously thinking about it: they have reached the stage of unconscious competence.

The Four Stages of Learning

First Stage – Unconscious incompetence

We are unaware of what we don’t know – often described as being in a state of blissful ignorance! Sometimes our confidence may exceed our ability and we don’t realise that we don’t have the knowledge or skills to do a particular task or job. We don’t know we don’t know until we become aware.

Second Stage – Conscious incompetence

We become aware of what we don’t know, and we discover a skill we wish to learn, eg: driving a car.
Our confidence may drop as we realise our ability is limited. (“I’ll never be able to do that!). At this stage we need the knowledge, support and encouragement to learn the new skill and build our confidence. We will make mistakes and fail sometimes until we eventually reach the next stage. This can be a very exciting time in the learning process but also a very stressful time.

Third Stage – Conscious competence

Through consciously practicing our new-found knowledge we eventually reach an acceptable level of competence. We are recognised as having acquired the skill, but we still have to concentrate on what we know and do in order to be consistently competent. Our confidence increases with our ability to implement this skill without failure.

Fourth Stage – Unconscious competence

Finally, we no longer need to focus on the skill because we can do it without thinking about it. It becomes natural to us – we can then do it while our mind is on other things. Our confidence and ability have peaked, we no longer have to concentrate on what we know or do when using this skill.

Points to consider:

There are a number of key points in this model that are useful to the Leader / Coach.

  • Once we have reached the level of Unconscious Competence it is easy to forget how we felt at Stage Two. Have you ever felt frustrated when trying to help people do something and they can’t seem to grasp it? We might be thinking, ……. “Why can’t they understand? It’s so simple.”
    It’s because they haven’t yet had the experience and practice that we have had. They need time, support and encouragement, not criticism.
  • Self-motivation, confidence and a positive attitude to learning is critical to the learning process. As a leader we need to create a climate where individuals are highly motivated to learn.
  • Individuals need the freedom to fail and learn from the experience. It may be a cliché, but every failure is one more step nearer to success – provided we learn from the failure. To make a mistake is ok …. to make the same mistake twice is not ok.
  • Giving people genuine praise when they get something right builds their confidence and their belief that they can achieve more. It is also satisfying and motivational to know that our efforts have been recognised and acknowledged in a positive way.

4. Blame-free

We can easily determine whether a blame culture exists in an organisation by the first words that are uttered, when something goes wrong.

  • “Who did it?” = Blame Culture
  • “What went wrong?” = Blame-free.

A lot of energy can be spent finding a scapegoat – somewhere to lay the blame – but to what purpose? To exert power? To hold someone up as a warning to others? To lay down a mark in the sand that failure will not be tolerated? No one needs to be told they “got it wrong”, they already know that! ……… what they need is to feel that they can be helped to find a reason for it happening and supported in finding a solution.

In reality a blame culture only creates fear and encourages people to use their creative energies to cover things up when something goes wrong. They don’t take risks and they protect the status quo because they don’t want to be judged a failure. Creativity and innovation will be stifled as a result and decision-making is pushed upwards through the organisation, because individuals are reluctant to take the responsibility (or the blame!)

If we are to help people achieve more of their potential and be the best that they can be then failure must be accepted as part of the learning process. This is much more difficult than we might think. The reason is that as humans we find it difficult to be non-judgmental, no matter how hard we try to be the opposite.

If we are to encourage people to take responsibility, be accountable for what they do and stretch themselves in their role then we must let them judge their progress against their own performance. As a leader and a coach, we must help them to look for root causes when things go wrong and support them in finding workable solutions.

5. Solution focus

When we dwell on a problem, it gets bigger. When we focus on a solution, the problem becomes manageable and we find more energy to deal with it. Think of a problem you may have – it could be small, like losing something temporarily, or something much more serious. Now think for a minute about the problem, not the solution. After one minute, ask yourself, “What would I like to have happen?” Notice the changes in your mind and body. You are immediately thrown forward towards solutions and even if no obvious answer presents itself, you feel more optimistic and you feel your energy levels have risen. As you think about solutions the problem shrinks. The result is you have a smaller problem and more energy to deal with it. When we are able to constructively analyse a problem, we are more likely to solve the problem for ourselves.

Remember Cathie, who’s staff seem to bring problems to her all the time? Cathie would also say that she is confident that her staff already have the ability to solve most of the problems they bring to her but choose not to.

Unfortunately, we can be quick to solve those problems because:

  • We already know the answer.
  • It is quicker than explaining it.
  • We want the interruption to go away so that we can get on with our own job.
  • We are a good manager and want to help our staff.

In reality we are not helping our staff, we are stifling them. We are not managing ourselves as well as we should by making decisions that can and should be made by others. Allowing decisions to move “up the organisation”.
Here is a simple tool you can use to encourage your staff to make decisions for themselves.

Some years ago, a Senior Manager used this simple technique to cut his “silly interruptions” time by 75%. Like Cathie he was constantly being asked to solve problems for his staff – problems that he knew they were perfectly capable of solving for themselves. He called a team meeting and said to his team. “I am responsible for achieving the targets for our department and you have an important role to play in achieving our targets. In order to help us do that and to help you with your own development, I am asking for your support in trying out something I learned at a recent seminar. Before coming to me with a problem I would ask you to answer these four questions.

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the causes of the problem?
  3. What are the possible solutions?
  4. What in your opinion, is the best possible solution or solutions?”

Gradually, individuals started to come with solutions that they could then both discuss, but in most cases they didn’t have to come at all, as they found workable solutions and already had the authority to implement them.

When people find their own solutions, they will likely work harder to achieve a successful outcome. They will grow in confidence and become much more solution-focused.

6. Challenge

Most of us like to be challenged and stretched within a supportive and encouraging environment. When we aim higher than is absolutely necessary, it is easier to hit the mark we wanted in the first place and most often will hit a higher target than we originally set. A coach helps the individual to reflect on past success and relive the challenges that they faced then. The individual is then reminded that they had the will and resolve to overcome those challenges that may have seemed very big at the time. Very often we forget how big our past challenges were and may have thought at the time that they couldn’t be overcome – but they were. Look for opportunities to challenge and stretch your staff and then coach and support them through it.

7. Action

Change, however small requires action. The role of the Coach is to encourage the individual to “take action”. A leader/coach can develop a strong working relationship; can help to create a blame-free environment; can provide encouragement, help and support; can help the individual identify solutions and strategies and can look for or even create opportunities for staff, but it is the individual that must take the action to make the plans a reality. The leader/coach must be firm and resolute in ensuring that the individual accepts and welcomes the responsibility for making it happen.

The above principles will be further explored when we look at coaching models and the skills and characteristics of effective coaching.